Chepstow Castle and 1816 road bridge across the Wye
Chepstow is a town in south-eastern Monmouthshire, adjoining the border with Gloucestershire. It is located on the River Wye, close to its confluence with the River Severn, and close to the western end of the Severn Bridge on the M48 motorway. It is 16 miles east of Newport and 124 miles west of London.
Chepstow is most notable for its castle, the oldest surviving stone castle in Britain, and for Chepstow Racecourse which hosts the Welsh Grand National. The majority of the town is on the west bank of the Wye; adjoining villages on the eastern bank of the Wye, Tutshill and Sedbury, are located in Gloucestershire.
Origins of the name
Chepstow sits on the River Wye, about two miles upstream of its confluence with the River Severn. The location was named Striguil (or Estrighoiel) in Norman times – from the Welsh word ystraigyl meaning a bend in the river – but by about the 14th century had become known in English as Chepstow, from the old English ceap / chepe stowe meaning market place. The Welsh name for the town, Cas-gwent (being short for Castell Gwent), means "castle of Gwent", the name Gwent itself deriving ultimately from the Roman name Venta applied to what is now called Caerwent, some five miles west of Chepstow.
The oldest known site of human habitation around Chepstow is at Thornwell, near the modern M48 motorway junction, where archæological investigations in advance of recent housing development revealed continuous human occupation from the Mesolithic period of around 5,000 BC until the end of the Roman period, about AD 400. There are also Iron Age fortified camps in the area, at Bulwark and Piercefield, dating from the time of the Silures. Later, there was probably a Roman bridge or ford over the Wye at Castleford about one mile upstream of the existing town bridge. Chepstow is located at a crossing point directly between the Roman towns at Gloucester (Glevum) and Caerwent (Venta Silurum). Although historians think it likely that there was a small Roman fort in the area, the only evidence found so far has been of Roman material and burials, rather than buildings.
After the Romans left, Chepstow replaced Caerwent as the main port and market town within the southern part of the Kingdom of Gwent. A priory was established during this period, dedicated to St Kingsmark a disciple of Dubricius. Few remains have been found of the priory, which was located in the area originally called Llangynfarch, now a suburban housing estate (Kingsmark Lane). It became an Augustinian priory but was eventually superseded by the later Norman priory in the town centre.
The town is close to the southern end of Offa's Dyke, which begins at Sedbury, Glos., near the east bank of the Wye and runs all the way to the Irish Sea at Prestatyn in Flintshire. This was built in the 8th century as a boundary between the kingdoms of Mercia, Powys and Gwent, although recent research suggests that the part near Chepstow may not actually be part of the original Dyke. The Lancaut and Beachley peninsulas, opposite Chepstow, formed part of Gwent rather than Mercia at that time, although the position was reversed by the time of the Domesday Book, in which Striguil is included as part of Gloucestershire.
Chepstow Castle is the oldest surviving stone fortification in Britain. After the Norman Invasion Chepstow was identified as an ideal site for a castle, not only because it controlled a crossing point on the strategically-important River Wye, but also because the steep limestone gorge and castle dell afforded an excellent defensive location. William the Conqueror ordered its construction in 1067, and, according to the Domesday Book, it was supervised by the master castle builder of the time, William fitzOsbern. The speed with which William the Conqueror committed to the creation of a castle at Chepstow is testament to its strategic importance. At the time, the kingdoms in the area were independent of the English crown and the castle in Chepstow provided a way to deter the Welsh from attacking Gloucestershire. From the 14th century, with the end of the wars between England and Wales, the castle's importance declined.
A town grew up beside the castle, the Priory church, and the port, and in 1294 Chepstow was given the right to hold a weekly market and annual fair. It flourished partly because it was exempt from English taxation. The town wall, locally known as the Port Wall, was built about this time, and mostly still stands. Particularly good sections can be seen at the Welsh Street car park, and either side of the A48 road. The Town Gate through the wall at the top end of the High Street was rebuilt in the 16th century and was used as a toll gate.
The most significant church in Chepstow is the Parish and Priory Church of St Mary, located at the bottom of the town. It, like the castle, is Norman in origin, although much rebuilt and extended in later centuries. St Mary's was the centre of a religious community with a convent and school, the remains of which are buried under the adjoining car park. Benedictine monks from Cormeilles Abbey in Normandy, Chepstow's twin town, were there until the Dissolution of the Monasteries from 1536.
Three miles south-west of Chepstow is St Pierre, the longtime holding of the Lewis family, who were seated at St Pierre from mediæval times and who were among the largest landowners in the area. Today it is a Marriott Hotel and Country Club.
In addition to being a market town, Chepstow was from mediæval times the largest port in Wales. Chepstow was still a bustling port of substance when, during the period 1790 to 1795, records show a greater tonnage of goods handled than Swansea, Cardiff & Newport combined. In the mediæval period it mainly traded in timber from the Wye Valley and with Bristol, although records show that Chepstow ships sailed as far afield as Iceland and Turkey, as well as to France, Portugal and Ireland. Ships, including many built and launched in Chepstow, clearly sailed the world, and in 1840 leaders of the Chartist insurrection in Newport were transported from Chepstow to Van Diemen's Land (Tasmania).
Other goods exported from Chepstow over the years included wire made in the many mills on the tributaries of the Wye, leather which was tanned with the bark of the forest's oaks, and paper primarily from Mounton Mill which produced the first high grade security paper used by the Bank of England for the printing of bank notes. An important aspect of Chepstow's trade was entrepôt trade: bringing larger cargoes into the manageable deep water of the Wye on high tide and breaking down the load for on-shipment in the many trows up the Wye to Hereford past the coin stamping mill at Redbrook, or up the Severn to Gloucester and beyond. Chepstow also traded across the estuary to Bristol on suitable tides to work vessels up and down the Avon to that city's centre.
The port function and local shipbuilding trade declined during the 19th century as ship design developed and the cities of Cardiff, Newport and Swansea became more suitable for handling the bulk export of coal and steel from the Glamorganshire and Monmouthshire valleys. Shipbuilding was briefly revived during the First World War when the first prefabricated ships were constructed. Ships like The War Glory & The War Illiad were constructed and launched primarily from the slipways on the Chepstow side, where 10,000 tons was the manageable limit. The last of these ships was recorded as lost at sea in the South Atlantic losing all hands, whilst carrying a cargo of grain in 1956.
The area known as "Garden City" and parts of Bulwark Village were built to house the workers that were brought to Chepstow from 1917 to work in the new National Shipyard No.1. The Bulwark area is now home to about two thirds of the population of Chepstow.
The shipyard developed on the site where the railway bridge had been constructed, and was subsequently taken over by the engineering firm Fairfield Mabey Bridge, who specialise in steelwork producing spans for bridges and other structures. One such structure was the lock gate for Avonmouth Docks where during delivery a squall struck the gates and the delivery crew were swept off and lost. In the 19th century the town was also known for the production of clocks, bells, and grindstones. Other local industries have included the material for artificial ski slopes, developed at the "Dendix" brush factory, which in its time was a producer of everything from small specialist brushes to huge industrial brushes.
Chepstow housed the head office of the Red & White bus company (on Bulwark Road). The town also had links with the international snuff trade through Singleton's Snuff.
MVM Films, an anime distributor, is headquartered in Chepstow.
The old cast iron road bridge across the Wye, dating from 1816 and designed by John Rastrick, is an elegant example of engineering from the Regency period. The bridge comprises five cast-iron arches carried on stone piers and has a central span of 112 ft. It succeeded a number of wooden predecessors which had been built on or near the same site since at least 1228, and possibly much earlier. In 1576 the bridge was described as being in great decay, and an Act was passed making Gloucestershire and Monmouthshire responsible for the repair of their respective halves. Neglect continued however, and in 1606 the bridge was said to have fallen down and been carried away. By the beginning of the 18th century the bridge comprised a wooden decking carried by a central stone pier and five piers on either side each formed by a number of timber piles. The Monmouthshire half of the bridge was rebuilt as four stone arches in 1785, but the Gloucestershire half remained timber until 1815 when rebuilding of the whole bridge was begun to the overall plans of John Rennie, as modified by Rastrick.
Until the Severn Bridge – now part of the M48 motorway– was opened in 1966, and a new A48 bridge over the Wye in 1988, the old bridge carried all the long-distance road traffic. The Severn Bridge has the second longest span of any bridge in the United Kingdom; it replaced the Aust-Beachley ferry.
Chepstow railway station is on the Gloucester to Newport Line, which includes Arriva services between Nottingham and Cardiff Central. The railway bridge also known as "The Great Tubular Bridge" spanning the river Wye between Chepstow and Sedbury was designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel in 1852 as part of the G.W.R, but the original structure was replaced in the 1960s. Until 1959, passenger trains operated up the Wye Valley Railway to Monmouth – this service ceased owing to heavy financial losses. The line at Chepstow was blocked by a landslide on 12 November 2009, following heavy rain.
The town today
Chepstow town centre has over 130 shops within walking distance of 1000 car park spaces. There are 16 hotels, bars and pubs, and 15 restaurants and cafes. Chepstow Community Hospital was opened in 2002 as a PFI-funded hospital and several new housing estates have been developed across the town. Over £2 million has recently been invested in regenerating the town centre. This scheme, which includes new sculptures including a boatman and other public art, encountered some local criticism over its high cost, but has gained several national awards reflecting its high design quality.
The area beside the river has been attractively landscaped as part of a flood defence scheme. The town holds a biennial festival, an annual folk festival, and has also organised major son et lumiere pageants covering aspects of local history, using local residents under professional direction. There is also a local museum, opposite Chepstow Castle entrance.
There are industrial estates at Bulwark and close to the railway station, and a distribution centre on the edge of the town adjoining the junction with the M48 motorway. There has been housing development in recent years, particularly at the Bayfield estate west of the A466.
Chepstow Racecourse is the leading horse racing facility and course in Wales. It is located on the edge of the town, in the grounds of the ruined Piercefield House. Sundays see a large market set up on the racecourse grounds which is attended by vendors from as far afield as Birmingham, London, Kent and beyond. During the course of the year the racecourse hosts hobby and antique fairs.
Chepstow also has many schools, including Chepstow School. J.K. Rowling is an alumna of Wyedean School and Sixth Form Centre in nearby Sedbury. There are also a number of churches in Chepstow, including non-conformist denominations.
Chepstow Town FC was founded in 1878. They last won a league title in 1997. The town also has a rugby football club and an athletic Club for archery (St Kingsmark Bowmen), tennis, bowls, cricket and junior football.
Nearby are the Royal Forest of Dean, the Wye Valley, and the National Diving and Activity Centre. Tintern Abbey is about five miles distant. Being located on a major motorway, bus and train network, the town attracts many commuters who will on a daily basis commute to Bristol, Gloucester, Newport, Cardiff and elsewhere.
Chepstow is twinned with Cormeilles, France.
- William Bedloe (1650–1680), anti-Catholic informer
- James Davis, (1706/07-1755), physician and satirist
- James Stephens (1821–1889), stonemason, Chartist, and leading Australian trade unionist
- Eleanor Anne Ormerod (1828–1901), leading entomologist, was born at nearby Sedbury Park
- Ted Pooley (1842–1907), cricketer with Surrey and Middlesex 
- Sir Herbert Isambard Owen (1857–1927), University academic and nephew of Isambard Kingdom Brunel
- William Charles Williams (1880–1915), awarded the Victoria Cross for gallantry in World War I, born in Shropshire but raised in Chepstow
- Eddie Parris (1911–1971), first black player to play football for Wales
- Ollie Burton (born 1941), Wales international footballer
- J. K. Rowling (born 1965), author of the Harry Potter books, lived in the adjoining village of Tutshill from the age of 9, and attended secondary school at Wyedean School.
- Grant Nicholas (born 1967) of the band Feeder grew up in Pwllmeyric, just outside Chepstow.
- Owain Yeoman (born 1978), film and television actor (The Mentalist).
- Paul Parry (born 1980), Wales international footballer, playing for Preston North End.
References and sources
- BBC - South East Wales Celtic Heritage - Bulwarks Camp
- Roman bridge at Extreme Archaeology
- Miranda Aldhouse-Green and Ray Howell (eds.), Gwent In Prehistory and Early History: The Gwent County History Vol.1, 2004, ISBN 0-7083-1826-6
- Sir Joseph Bradney, A History of Monmouthshire: The Hundred of Caldicot, 1933
- Mediæval gravestones (or tomb slabs) at St. Pierre Church near Chepstow
- Lewis of St. Pierre, Burke's Genealogical and Heraldic History of the Landed Gentry, Bernard Burke, 1847
- "About Us." MVM Films. Retrieved on 14 September 2009.
- Tidenham including Lancaut - Introduction | British History Online
- Rail delays after landslide, Edinburgh Evening News
- Chepstow Town Crier
- "'Bravest sailor' honoured by town". BBC News. 25 April 2006. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/wales/south_east/4939738.stm. Retrieved 28 April 2010.
- Ivor Waters (1972). The Town of Chepstow. ISBN 0900278129.
- Ivor Waters Numerous other books and pamphlets by this local historian
- Anne Rainsbury (ed.) (1989) Chepstow and the River Wye in old photographs
- Rick Turner & Andy Johnson (eds.) (2006) Chepstow Castle - its history and buildings
- Chepstow Town Council
- Chepstow Town Crier Online Magazine
- The Chepstow Society
- Chepstow Walkabout - interactive tour of the town
- Local history site
- Chepstow Castle
- Chepstow Castle at www.castles-of-wales.com
- Chepstow school
- Chepstow racecourse
- Town centre regeneration
- Further information on regeneration scheme
- The River Severn
- www.geograph.co.uk : photos of Chepstow and surrounding area